If you want to understand what China’s Communist Party, wannabe boss-of-the-world, envisions for us all—just look today to the grim transformation of Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.
This pleasant area near the harbor, with its greenery, sports pitches, and big central lawn, is where, for more than 30 years, Hong Kongers have gathered and lit candles to celebrate the courage and dreams of liberty that animated China’s 1989 Tiananmen uprising, and mourn the slaughter with which China’s communists crushed that movement for freedom, centered in the heart of Beijing. Since 1989, Beijing’s commissars have gone all out inside mainland China to obliterate the truth of Tiananmen, 1989. This year, one of China’s state propaganda outlets, the Global Times, celebrated the 1989 Tiananmen “incident” as having “inoculated the Chinese people with a political vaccine, helping us acquire immunity from being seriously misled.” (The article did not mention the vast apparatus of surveillance, diktats, censorship, prison terms and other strictures and punishments with which the CCP continues to ensure that China’s 1.4 billion people do not again embark on any “misled” movements to speak freely, choose their own leaders or decide for themselves the direction of their country.) Beijing’s grotesque rewrite of history is part of a vast CCP campaign of propaganda and coercion dedicated to ensuring that the people of China do not attempt a replay of the 1989 democratic movement that was, in truth, the People’s Republic of China’s finest hour.
But in Hong Kong, people remember. Year after year, it has been an inspiring sight, as tens of thousands have come to Victoria Park at dusk, and, with candles (and, in recent years, mobile phone flashlights), transformed the park into a field of light. Those June 4 vigils have been one of the glories of Hong Kong, the only territory under China’s red flag where people were free to commemorate Tiananmen, 1989.
Not this year. China in gross violation of its treaty obligations has scrapped wholesale over the past few years its promises that Hong Kong following the 1997 British handover would enjoy at least 50 years of its accustomed rights and freedoms. But Hong Kong’s freedom-loving people do not readily submit. Last year, despite official refusal to authorize a vigil in Victoria Park, many came anyway. Some were arrested; prominent democracy advocate Joshua Wong received a 10-month prison sentence for taking part.
This year, on June 4, authorities simply closed the park, threatening years in prison for anyone who might try to enter there, let alone light a candle on the premises. Photos show an empty park, surrounded by metal barriers and ranks of police, some holding up signs threatening anyone who might approach: “Police Warning: You are in breach of the law. You may be prosecuted.” In a high-rise overlooking the park, from headquarters set up last year in concert with the Beijing-imposed National Security Law, is an outfit with a forbidding name and sweeping mission of repression: Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (CPGNSO).
None of this deterred some Hong Kongers from doing what they still could to hold a vigil. Some came to the perimeter of the forbidden park, and held up lit cell phones. Some walked through the streets holding flowers, or lit candles. They did so at great peril. There were arrests. Some of the organizers of the June 4 vigils have already been locked up. Many of the leading democracy advocates who came to these vigils in years past are now in prison, including Hong Kong’s world-famous newspaper publisher and champion of freedom, Jimmy Lai.
Why are Xi and his minions going to such lengths to stop people from lighting candles in a Hong Kong park? For the answer, we can draw a connection across 32 years—almost half a lifetime—from Tiananmen, 1989, to Victoria Park today. Having witnessed firsthand both the uprising and crackdown in Tiananmen, 1989, and Hong Kong’s heroic protests for democracy in 2019, I can assure you that for all the differences of setting and tactics, there is a continuum to Beijing’s methods that shows us the same rough beast at work. The deep tragedy of Tiananmen was not limited to the killing of peaceful protesters, though the carnage China’s communists inflicted on their own people was so repugnant that it transfixed the world. (So did the courage of the protesters, summed up by a lone Chinese man who stood up to a column of tanks. In that instance, the tanks halted. But in the larger picture, the tanks, and the entire monstrous machinery of Beijing’s communist repression, rolled on.) The overarching result in China was to further entrench one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and shut down a powerful domestic movement for democracy, for free speech, for accountable government, for freedom.
China is now grinding toward precisely that same goal in Hong Kong, home to a mature free society and home to some of the world’s most eloquent voices for freedom (many of them now in prison or in exile). To date there have been no tanks in the streets. The tactics have been more elaborately paced, more tailored to eviscerate a free society while preserving such profitable amenities as the cargo facilities and banking system.
According to Xi Jinping and his CCP, all this is in service of providing stability and order, the better to pursue what the Global Times, in praising the lessons of Tiananmen, 1989, called the “socialist path with Chinese characteristics” that has enabled China’s “remarkable progress that amazed the world.” What they don’t mention is that it is possible—quite demonstrably so—with far better systems, under vastly better rule, to make remarkable progress without sacrificing freedom. Back in the 1980s, when China was just beginning to emerge from the needless destitution and murderous mortal agonies of Mao’s communism, places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea were bringing us the Asian miracle, combining growing freedom with greater prosperity. These were feats far more remarkable and worth emulating than China’s contorted and dehumanizing system. Yes, you can have both wealth and freedom; that’s what’s underpinned the modern developed world.
But you can’t have both in Xi Jinping’s China, where in order for the Communist Party to keep control, wealth and power must be constantly segregated from any “misled” impulses toward freedom, democratic choice, and individual dignity. These are affronts and threats to the party, whether they arise at home or as inspiring examples abroad.
Thus did China’s communists transform Tiananmen from a place of democratic hopes in the spring of 1989, to a heavily guarded showplace where China’s communists can entertain dignitaries and parade the tanks and missiles with which they plan to shore up plans for sharing their system with the world, like it or not.
Thus do we see China’s transformation of Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, on June 4, 2021, from a place for people to honor freedom and those who died for it, to an empty reflection of the nihilist core of Xi’s grand China dream: a vacant park, walled off by police, overlooked by state security, off-limits to the humanity all that massive “national security” is officially supposed to serve. Next on the list is quite likely Taiwan, though Xi has made clear it’s not just East Asia, but a global order he aspires to lead along this path of “remarkable progress.” Unless we stop it, that’s the CCP’s China Dream, coming for us all.